Oh, Nichole Nordeman, how we have missed thee. Brave was released a decade ago. Yes, there was the collaborative project The Story in 2011, and it was excellent, but that voice, that piano, and most of all those lyrics are bright spots in Christian music, and their absence has been palpable. And so, finally, The Unmaking has arrived, a 6-song EP of new studio music. The first notes of the first song remind any listener who might have forgotten that Nordeman is a treasure.
Released with relatively little fanfare, there are curiosities about The Unmaking. Why an EP? The format has tended toward interstitial releases between big projects, and the timing here doesn't quite qualify. Perhaps it's another indication of the slow death of the full-length. If we pretend for a moment, though, that this was a vinyl LP, it would be a story of two sides, with three songs each.
Side one is the title track, "Not to Us" (a vocal duet with Plumb), and "Name," each one a fine song. "The Unmaking" highlights Nordeman's ability to take a familiar concept, in this case, the need to lose oneself to find God, and illustrate it with vivid metaphor and personal connection. The opening verse is really quite wonderful, which makes it more of a disappointment when, one minute in, the production switches gears to fairly routine CCM pop mode.
"Not to Us" invokes Psalm 115:1 and hints at the sentiment of "Tremble" to once again turn our gaze away from self and to the Almighty. The singing tradeoff is interesting; Nordeman and Plumb are not too dissimilar vocally, but they pair remarkably well. Rounding out our artificial side one is "Name," an effective "don't get down on yourself" song, once again ironically dulled by a too-bright pop sheen. The second verse in particular is a perfect message for many who struggle with assurance of salvation; don't miss it through the gloss.
It's on the flip side where the EP becomes a full realization of Nordeman's profound talents. "Love You More" opens to strings that at first feel a bit overwrought until the tender vocal speaks line after line of biblical stories of failure. In the first verse alone, the listener is deftly led through ten remarkable summaries of emotional collapse, disappointment, and sin. A prechorus makes the song personal, and the plaintive vocal of the chorus declares this powerful prayer: "I love You. I'm trying to love You more." This is Nordeman at her best.
Next, "Something Out of Me" jars the listener a bit with honky-tonk piano and a tantalizing first line: "Just you and me on a hillside / And four thousand, nine hundred, and ninety-nine." The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is told from the perspective of a random person in the crowd marveling that the same Jesus who can turn a paltry bit of food into a bounty can make "something out of me." Here's a fun line, recalling the container of the loaves and fish: "I see impossible but / You see a basket full of / A little bit of 'This sounds crazy!' / A little bit of 'Just maybe…'."
Nordeman saves the most emotional track on the EP until the end with "Slow Down," a parent-child song co-written with Christopher Stevens. It's a sweet journey from infanthood to the point when "you were trying to free your fingers from my hand." The song is particularly poignant in our overscheduled and distracted society, and though it's sentimental, it is never maudlin.
Throughout the EP, Nordeman's vocals are artful, switching effortlessly between registers and conveying honest emotion. If there's fault with this collection, it's that one wishes it was a full-length album, and that the pop production at times diminishes the lyrical depth and insight and the evocative vocals. When the songs feel more organic is when they are most effective.
These are minor quibbles. Nordeman remains head and shoulders above much of her genre, and it's a delight to see new music from her. Here's to the hope that the EP is indicative of a steady stream of thoughtful, well-crafted songs that make us think, touch our emotions, and enrich our relationship with God.
- Review date: 8/28/15, written by Mark D. Geil of Jesusfreakhideout.com